Inside the Festival Academy Budapest

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Family, folk dancing and a masterclass from 98-year-old György Kurtág: Jack Pepper meets the Hungarian violinist star couple behind central Europe’s leading chamber music festival

2024 key visual with Katalin Kokas and Kelemen Barnabás

Barnabás Kelemen and Katalin Kokas (creative: Imre Szabó-Stein, photo: Róbert Bacsi)

In 2016, husband and wife violinists Barnabás Kelemen and Katalin Kokas created the Festival Academy Budapest, bringing world-class chamber music to the Hungarian capital every July. The 10-day festival is centred around the beautiful Art Nouveau building of the Liszt Academy in Budapest (where both Kokas and Kelemen are Professor); together they host international guest artists like Joshua Bell, Vilde Frang, Andreas Ottensamer, Alina Ibragimova, Ferenc Rados and Gidon Kremer, and welcome students from around the world for a parallel series of masterclasses, competitions and teacher meetings. It is perhaps unique in celebrating both classical and folk music, treating both with equal seriousness and flair.

The festival is a product of love – not just for music, but for eachother, made clear in Kelemen and Kokas’s prolific work together both on stage and on record. Kossuth Prize-winning Kelemen and Liszt Award-winning Kokas play in the Kelemen Quartet, which has performed in the Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall and the Wigmore Hall. Their recording with Vilde Frang, Nicolas Alstaedt and Alexander Lonquich of Bartók's Piano Quintet for Alpha Classics won the 2020 Gramophone Chamber Music Award.

vilde frang

Vilde Frang

Bartók is a key speciality for Kelemen, his recording of the complete violin sonatas having won a Gramophone Award in 2013 (his performances of the Violin Concerto another gem often singled out for praise). But Kelemen’s repertoire is broad, from solo, chamber and string quartets to concerti, from early baroque, classical and romantic to the new; he has given Hungarian premieres of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, György Ligeti, Alfred Schnittke, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt and world premieres for György Kurtág and Ryan Wigglesworth.

It’s a breadth of repertoire, geography and spirit that is mirrored in their festival – as I discovered when we sat down…

Jack Pepper (JP): How did the Festival begin?

Barnabás Kelemen (BF): When I applied for my job to teach at the Liszt Academy back in 2002, I mentioned the idea that the summer would be an ideal time to fill the otherwise-empty building with students from all over the world. Meanwhile, my wife started the International Kaposvár Chamber Music Festival in 2010, set in the countryside ninety minutes from Budapest. The Franz Liszt Academy was renovated in this time, and they suggested we do an upgraded version of our festival there.

Liszt Academy Grand Hall

JP: How would you summarise the spirit of the festival? What makes this distinct?

Katalin Kokas (KK): It is a meeting point. A meeting point for the artist and for students from 25 different countries; 150 students came from abroad last summer. They visit for artist masterclasses and to hear how these soloists make chamber music together. The students have dinner with the soloists after and share rehearsals, so it’s a very close community – even though we’re 300 people strong! We have 60 artists from across the world, mainly soloists, many of them professors at the likes of the Menuhin and Juilliard Schools. Last year, teachers came from Greece especially for the open masterclasses given by György Kurtág on Bartók’s String Quartets. But it’s also a meeting point for Hungarian students; another 150 10- to 15-year-olds attend from our own country. So, it’s a meeting point for different ages, styles and nationalities. But at the root of our festival is the belief we must give a sense of our country; we always have Hungarian folk music with Hungarian folk dances, and have a teacher who shows the students how to dance to Hungarian folk music. It’s totally different to play Bartók after feeling the rhythm and resonance of these Hungarian folk dances. Plus, we have authentic Gypsy music in the restaurant with the best Hungarian gypsy band around. Brahms, Liszt and Ravel are among the many composers inspired by this music.

JP: Barnabás, that particular music is in your blood. Your grandfather was a legendary gypsy violinist in the 1930s, the ‘prímás’ violinist Pali Pertis. How did his work and that playing shape you?

BK: I can play several tunes in that style but one can’t compare my gypsy music playing with those who focus their lives on it. This year, though, it’s particularly – and very sadly – special to explore this music, as the festival will mark 80 years since the Hungarian Holocaust. We will remember their lives and legacy with a special concert at the biggest synagogue in Europe, which holds more than 2000 people. We will also have klezmer music and traditional Jewish dances so that our students can understand and remember. The Festival is a bridge for all nations. In a way, we all came from the same roots; in the folk music especially, there is always a meeting point. We may be far apart in geography but we are close in music.

JP: How important is the location to this Festival – what does Budapest lend the music?

KK: We have a wide range of settings. Barnabás mentioned the Art Nouveau Dohány Street Synagogue; but on other days, we will visit three different churches, the Liszt Academy (both its large main hall and the Solti Hall), and we have The Hungarian House of Music. This is an incredible new centre built by a world-famous Japanese architect for Budapest’s Central Park. Our opening performances there will be a production of ‘Young Barbarians’, an incredible (subtitled) play inspired by Bartók and Kodaly’s lives and friendship, performed by the Cluj State Theatre, a theatre company from Transylvania.

Joshua Bell, Nicolas Altstaedt, Barnabás Kelemen, Kati Kokas, Dóra Kokas Photo  Andrea felvégi

Joshua Bell, Nicolas Altstaedt, Barnabás Kelemen, Kati Kokas, Dóra Kokas (photo: Andrea Felvégi)

JP: The breadth of spaces and repertoire is huge. Joshua Bell, one of your many international visitors, has commented how unique it is for a festival to pair classical concert repertoire with Hungarian folk music and gypsy folk music, treating them with equal seriousness. What does a classical instrumentalist learn from such variety?

BK: You hear something which is almost impossible to learn. But to feel it – to get it inside you – is a necessity if you want to play Brahms, Dvořák and Liszt. They were all inspired by this music. We must make a distinction between Hungarian folk music and gypsy music. If we talk about composers who experimented with Hungarian music, they thought it was only the gypsy music heard in restaurants; that started when the big cities developed, when social gatherings at weddings and restaurants began to have more and more of this sophisticated gypsy music. But much of this music comes from the time of the war with Austria; it was a type of Hungarian music pleading to be proud, hold together and be free. We were fighting for freedom after hundreds of years of occupation by Austria. 80-90% of this music is in a minor key, much of it can be connected to klezmer, and it’s filled with incredible virtuosity. This is what Joshua Bell was talking about; dancing music, folk dances and folk bands have been with the festival for years. It presents a different style for many of our students.

KK: We must not just respect this music but help spread it among the best artists in the world. This culture can be easily forgotten and lost. Gypsy musicians represent generations of amazing players from across the centuries. They say their babies are ‘born with a bow’; they’re born into this very intense and serious work, and we should take it as seriously, scientifically, and passionately as they do. Many today study it as kids but then become taxi drivers because there is no work for them here in Hungary. There are even tax reductions for some restaurants in Budapest if they give jobs to gypsy orchestras, to try to sustain them. They are in big trouble and we are in danger of losing this tradition, so we are trying to fight for this amazing culture.

JP: The questions of legacy and example are also at the heart of the International Ilona Fehér Violin Competition, which takes place right before your summer festival. How does this reflect your mission?

BK: We created this in 2017 and it is now open to violinists aged 22 and under. We realised that if we had to name one world-famous violin teacher for beginners, aged four to six – the most important age – then we think of Ilona Fehér. She escaped the Holocaust, fled to Palestine and established her incredible school. She gave a violin for the first time to people like Pinchas Zukerman. Her legacy is something we must shout about and protect. There is a tangible connection to her today; our jury is chaired by Shlomo Mintz, one of Ilona Fehér's last students in Israel.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja

KK: Bartók said ‘competitions are for horses, not artists.’ I respect his music and words deeply but on this we disagree. Competitions can be a huge help. Many young musicians feel alone when they start; a talented child in their local town doesn’t know that in another little town in another country, there is a child like them who works as hard and follows the same passion. We have practised since the age of five or six and few of our friends understood us at school; that can make us feel that what we do is strange. If you come to a competition, you realise you are not alone. We are alone, but we are together, and this inspires everyone. And what is different about our competition is that, if you leave during one of the first two rounds, you immediately get a masterclass from the mentors; the jury give something to those who didn’t make it to the final.

JP: What do you find are the biggest lessons your students are learning – the things young musicians often struggle with now that you find you really have to emphasise?

BK: Actually, this summer we will have three specialists talking about stage fright, self-promotion, marketing and social media. What does success mean these days? Then, of course, there’s a playing focus. Last year, in just ten days, we helped artists deliver 1,100 individual 50 minute lessons. It’s a huge timetable. The students get to play with some of the artists, and from our experience, one of the most important things is the question of connection: you must collaborate, you must meet people. Incredible connections have happened because of our festival: CDs, concerts, relationships, even babies have followed!

JP: How important is it that this is quite literally a family affair – is this festival what it is because you are together as a couple, as well as collaborators?

KK: We’ve been together for almost 28 years but because we have different temperaments and ways of thinking, we are strong collaborators. It’s not just the July festival; throughout the year, our mission continues. Music education for young people aged six to eighteen in Hungary still exists and is a great success compared to other European countries; but it’s very easy to let music go from schools, so we must work at it. We have at least 45 Hungarian artists – world-renowned soloists who live abroad – who have all agreed to come home periodically and give masterclasses to small music schools across Hungary. Last year we had 228 masterclasses in music schools and high schools, so that through the year we can continue the mission of our festival.

JP: So, what does success look like for you – a successful festival, a successful summer, a successful musician?

BK: Our string quartet is very important in our life. Competition success and awards, and playing at Wigmore and Carnegie Hall, are all important. But I feel we can be proudest if we are able to finish our work on all Bartók string quartets with the legendary György Kurtág. This summer will be our fifth one, on the July 18, an open masterclass on Bartók’s second; then we have only the first quartet left. This is what I call success for a string quartet’s life; lessons with a master like Kurtág are unforgettable. He learns the piece on the piano – he’s 98 years old! – and gives a three-hour lesson on a movement. For the 300 members of the audience, it’s transformational.

KK: For me, success is having the opportunity to teach many age groups and many kinds of talents; to teach all kids for the love of music. Success is living for what you love.

The Festival Academy Budapest runs July 14–21, and the Fifth Ilona Fehér International Violin Competition runs before it, from  July 4–14:

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